A cinematic feast

Don’t know much about film, but I know what I like ... to eat. Those whose interest is with the culinary rather than the celluloid have noted, often with distress, the more and more frequent coming together of these two great consumables. The foodie film is apparently on the rise, often with less than satisfying results.

Don’t get me wrong—those who spend close on every waking hour thinking about the next meal are not unhappy to see their obsession take its rightful place as part of the world’s most powerful communication medium.

In Ang Lee’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, the blanching of the Peking duck, the stuffing of the delicate dumplings and the chopping of odd-shaped vegetables into a rippling tide of ingredients in the legendary opening scene are all a joy to watch. The fact that the master chef, and widowed father of four girls, is losing his sense of smell adds to the pathos and to the surreal domestic chaos that makes this film memorable.

But not all experiences are so good. For a start, it is hard to make food look good on film and lights make things melt in a most unattractive manner. But the critical problem is that a film-maker cannot make you smell or taste things, so the key sensation evoked by food is absent.

After all, food is just a consumable, like sunglasses and dresses and shoes and pop culture. Film-makers who rely on ‘nosh for meaning’ are treading on dangerous ground. We want to hear and see stories about people, not things. Food and eating are only useful if they help drive the story, help us connect with the characters.

What and how a person cooks says more about them, and the way they live, than almost any other public act. The act of eating strips us bare. It can make a character noble, pathetic, courageous or craven. The old woman who—in an otherwise forgettable art-house flick—plucks a single underarm hair, and places it under her husband’s fried egg, has committed a much more violent act than if she had bashed him.

The exchange between the chaotic, murderous duo (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Fiction about the fact that a quarter-pounder with cheese is called a Royale by the French sets the tone for the film and for the two central characters. We soon find out that they are deeply amoral, but the Royale scene sets them up as human, funny and obsessive.

In American Beauty, the film-makers show us how tight-arsed the wife (Annette Bening) is when, in a moment of high passion, she throws caution to the wind and takes her lover to the burger drive thru. It is impossible to imagine a bigger dampener on her executive affair than what happens next: her husband (Kevin Spacey) serves the shocked pair at the dispensing window.

In Big Night, one of the best loved ‘foodie films’, immigrant brothers Primo and Secondo struggle to make it in the restaurant trade in 1950s America. Secondo sticks to his culinary guns, and refuses to pander to the ‘spaghetti with everything’ view of Italian food so they go broke. After the film’s climax, which includes a fistfight on the sand, the brothers reconcile over a shared omelette in the final scene. It is simple and quiet and lovely. And it works, because food is integral to the story.

Mostly Martha, however, is a very good example of how not to make a food film. Martha is a control freak head chef—all directional asparagus spears and three different sauces. Guess what? She doesn’t have much of a private life. Enter a free-spirited Italian cook, who teaches her to live and love. The problem here is simple. The characters are dull, and no amount of close focus on dinner plates is going to fix that.

So take my advice, suck the marrow out of the current crop of foodie films, and hope that they will lead to better things—but go to dinner before the flicks.

Catriona Jackson is a freelance food writer.



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